3. George Washington’s Surprise Attack at Trenton
As 1776 drew to a close, the Americans’ bid for independence was not going well. They had been outgeneraled, outfought, and soundly drubbed, most notably in New York City, where only a near miraculous escape had saved them from annihilation. Morale was low, so the Americans’ commander in chief, George Washington, planned a surprise raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence to the Revolutionary cause.
From his base in Pennsylvania, Washington sought to cross the nearly frozen Delaware River, to suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian mercenaries on the opposite bank, in Trenton, New Jersey. On the night of December 25 – 26, 1776, cold, hungry, and demoralized Americans clambered into boats on a freezing winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked at his overweight artillery chief, Henry Knox, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!”
It was no comedic gem, but any levity from the notoriously uptight Washington, especially on such a serious occasion, was highly unusual. The men were stunned into looking at each other in shocked disbelief. Then somebody chuckled, and soon, contagious laughter rippled through the attacking force, as Washington’s comment was spread and repeated.
Washington’s unexpected humor lifted the Americans’ spirits, but they still had a rough crossing ahead of them. Due to inclement weather and icy river conditions, two detachments were unable to cross the river, and Washington made it to the far bank with only 2400 men – 3000 fewer than planned for. Fortunately, they were undetected as they marched 9 miles to Trenton without alerting the enemy, who had lowered their guard and had no long distance patrols or outposts.
On the morning of December 26th, Washington’s men surprised the Hessians. In a swift victory, the Americans killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand of their enemy, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded. It was a small battle, but one with far reaching consequences. It inspired the Americans when they needed a morale boost, and saved the Patriot army from disintegration by attracting new recruits, and stemmed the tide of desertions by convincing many already in its ranks to stick around.